Friday, July 3, 2009

What Makes a Good Teacher?

In discussions of merit pay, teacher quality and assessment, I generally ask those I'm arguing with this question: Think of your Great Teachers - those handful of teachers who really made a difference, the ones you can usually count on one hand. What made them so great? Can you even explain it fully? And if you can, how do you quantify that on a massive scale?

I gave a presentation on this topic about a week ago or so to one of my graduate classes. To get started, the class brainstormed what makes a good teacher. On the various lists, composed by pre-service teachers and veteran teachers, elementary and secondary teachers, were characteristics like honesty, hopefulness, dedication, intelligence, patience, and so on. Things like "knowledgeable, engaging and inquisitive, aware of student knowledge, interests & abilities." I should add that nowhere did anyone mention "raises student test scores."

On the flip side, it's a tad difficult to decide what we want from teachers when we don't all agree on the purpose of education. Is it to impart content knowledge? Build character? Nourish development? Nurture lifelong learners? Inevitably, at the end of these types of lists, I say, "All of the above."

So I find myself irked when Cowboy Duncan comes along to vilify the teachers unions for opposing merit pay. Yes, yes, we know. Teachers unions are destroying education. Protecting the "status quo." Mmmhmm. Now, I don't exempt the unions from criticism. But it's been what, half a year now? And we keep hearing the same story. Merit pay good. Teacher unions bad. He pats himself on the back for the Chicago Teacher Performance Pay Plan. One good thing about that plan: it incorporates peer reviews, from what I've read. How they do it, I'm not entirely sure. Bad thing: it's centered around test gains.

So how about this, Arne. Instead of repeating yourself ad nauseum, tell me what this merit plan looks like in your mind. The research is out there. The problems with value-added models of teacher assessment (using gains in student test scores) are well-documented. Viable alternatives are also well-documented. What do you see as the purpose of teacher assessment? Is it only as a means to determine pay? Or tenure? Quality teacher assessments actually lead to better teachers. In the meantime, until we get some details, I'm not all that thrilled about the idea of merit pay either. (Don't get me wrong. I'd love to make more money. And I think I'll be a pretty good teacher. But in terms of the grand scheme of things, I remain unconvinced it's a good idea.)

From the article:
Duncan pointedly advocated using student test score data to assess teacher effectiveness. "It's time we all admit that just as our testing system is deeply flawed, so is our teacher evaluation system."
Am I the only one who laughed out loud at that? So the answer to this is to use our deeply flawed testing system to fix our deeply flawed evaluation system?

I finished Educating Esmé: Diary of a Teacher's First Year yesterday. One entry in particular struck me, for it highlighted the utter absurdity of this system.
"At this point Rowisha turned around and started pounding B.B. with both fists until he fell to the floor, right there in the hall. It reminded me of when Twanette was beaten in front of me....B.B. shrived and whined. She screamed about his behavior and gang involvement and how she's-not-even-going-to-think-about-it-I'll-just-have-your-ass-hauled-into-juvenile-next-time-you-do-any-such-bullshit. I pulled her off B.B. She stormed off, disappearing around a corner. B.B. was hysterical, so I picked him up and hugged him and kissed him on the forehead and stroked the top of his head and told him it was going to be alright. Then Rowisha came back and hollered, "Don't baby this son of a bitch, his stupid ass doesn't deserve it, " and punched him once more. I still tried to help him get it together. In ten minutes he was going to have the Iowa Standardized Test of Basic Skills administered to him."

1 comment:

  1. An interesting question about great teachers revolves around generations. My best teachers lived in the 50's and 60's. Well, that's when I went to school. They were smart people, all highly accomplished in their field.

    I don't know what's up with teachers today. As an author of textbooks I have been deeply troubled by the dumbing down of material requested by teachers at the college level. Of course one is more likely to hear from the dumbos about dumbing down than the smart ones who probably don't write the author.

    Perhaps it's nonsense, but I think what may constitute great teaching and great teachers may have changed over generations. I wonder if there is any book on the matter.